Review: Girl from the North Country, Old Vic

Minnesota, 1934. Following the Wall Street crash of 1929 America entered the Great Depression. The winters in the four years after were harsh and hit Americans hard, with more out of work, hungry and homeless than the year before. With Franklin Roosevelt elected the new president in 1933, new hope was given to Americans. A dangerous new hope, as they no longer succumbed to their suffering but grew restless with the idea that they could have more. This is the backdrop to Conor McPherson’s new musical play Girl from the North Country. Inspired by the music of Bob Dylan, the play explores the desperation of the era, and the solemnity reflected in his music. Centred on Nick Laine (Ciaran Hinds), his family, and his run down guest-house full of miscreants, failures, and folk who are down on their luck.

The music, mostly performed by the in-house band, has an unusual relationship with the plot. It reflects or captures the emotion of the story, but isn’t always directly related to the characters or the events. It’s an original and innovative way to incorporate Dylan’s sultry music into theatre, and may be favourable for those who don’t enjoy the cheesy gleam of a traditional large-scale musical. McPherson puts it best himself – ‘It’s not a greatest hits compilation or a classic West End blockbuster where the songs drive the plot. It’s a conversation between the songs and the story’.

Set design by Rae Smith places us in the Midwest, and along with costume and lighting by Mark Henderson, the stage reeks of desperation and the hand-to-mouth existence that so many Americans endured. But also, the bitter beauty of a simple life, and the warmth of a home in which a family is just getting by. Sheila Atim is memorable as Marianne Laine, and her voice, as she stands centre stage in a red dress, unmarried and pregnant at just 19, is clean and pure. She is angelic, and her performance of Idiot Wind is arresting and enchanting.

Shirley Henderson also shines as Elizabeth Laine, Marianne’s adopted Mother who is mentally ill. Henderson brings a naivety to the role, and like the ghost of a child, is haunting, unpredictable and slightly scary as Elizabeth, as she dances fluidly around the stage. Her son Gene (Sam Reid) is however perhaps the most tragic of them all, thwarted by a world in which he doesn’t fit. To be a young man who writes stories in 1934, is to be a poor man with no job and no wife. Despite being young and handsome, Reid gives Gene a deep dissatisfaction, and we get the sense that he knows what he ought to do, he knows what he could have, but it’s just out of reach.

The musicians and ensemble bring thickness and heart to the piece. The entire cast together perform a rousing rendition of You Ain’t Goin Nowhere that is wholesome and lovely, and stirs support for the stoicism in their misery. They still have the strength to sing. Girl from the North Country is somewhere between a bleak depression-era play and a good old song and dance. Despite being set almost 80 years ago, it feels modern and fresh, and it’s got a lot of heart.

Girl from the North Country is playing at the Old Vic until October 7.

Photo: Tristram Kenton